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Correction to This Article
A March 9 Style article said that freelance journalist Jason Leopold served time for grand larceny. Leopold spent three days in jail after being charged but did not serve time after his conviction.

Subject's Challenge Derails Reporter's Book Project

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page C07

Jason Leopold got a journalistic black eye three years ago when Salon retracted a story the freelancer had written about a Bush administration official, saying it could not authenticate the piece.

Now the former Los Angeles Times and Dow Jones reporter has written a book, "Off the Record," that criticizes journalists as lazy. Oh, and by the way, Leopold says he engaged in "lying, cheating and backstabbing," is a former cocaine addict, served time for grand larceny, repeatedly tried to kill himself and has battled mental illness his whole life.

But the book's publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, has canceled "Off the Record" days before it was to go to press, despite having sent out news releases and listed the book on Amazon.com. The publisher acted after receiving a warning letter from one subject's lawyer.

"I'm devastated," Leopold said yesterday. "I worked really hard these past two years to restore my credibility after the Salon fiasco. . . . I have a checkered past, and I was hoping that by coming clean about my own past, it would allow me to move forward."

According to a lengthy press release on the book's publication from Rowman & Littlefield, a small publisher based in Lanham, Leopold says Steven Maviglio, a former spokesman for then-California Gov. Gray Davis, "confided in me that he might have broken the law by investing in energy companies using inside information."

Maviglio, who now works for the California legislature, says that Leopold "just got it completely wrong" and that he never "confided" in Leopold. He says his lawyer sent the publisher a letter demanding that the material Maviglio deems defamatory be removed.

Jon Sisk, publisher of Rowman & Littlefield, says only that the book has been dropped for "business reasons."

Maviglio says he bought Enron stock in 1996 and stock in a California energy firm in 2001 -- which he quickly sold -- and that federal and state regulators found no wrongdoing on his part. The "Off the Record" press release says Leopold leaked the information about the stock purchases to Davis's Republican critics, who leaked it to two California papers, creating a flap for the Democratic governor's press secretary at the height of the state's energy crisis.

"I wasn't worried about breaking the law," Maviglio says. "I was worried about the perception." He says that Sacramento reporters considered Leopold a "laughingstock" and that when he called to complain about the forthcoming book, Leopold said: "I could use the publicity if you want to make something of it."

Leopold is blaming the publisher. In recent e-mails to associates, he said he never wrote the offending language about Maviglio in his book. Instead, Leopold says, the company's publicist took that and other material from his book proposal, not the finished manuscript.

"If news of this controversy leaks out to the media, it will virtually destroy my writing career, both as a journalist and author, in my opinion," Leopold wrote in a Feb. 28 e-mail. "I am already a lightning rod and the media will quickly eat this up and brand me as an untrustworthy writer." The publisher, he added, should "take full responsibility for this fiasco" since the book had been "vetted" by lawyers.

The Salon debacle in 2002 involved a purported e-mail from then-Army secretary Thomas White, a former Enron executive, which White said he had no recollection of writing. Leopold reported that White, while at Enron, had written: "Close a bigger deal. Hide the loss before the 1Q." The online magazine initially said Leopold had plagiarized part of the story, then retracted it altogether.

Leopold told The Washington Post at the time that Salon was being "wimpy," but a Salon executive said the source cited by Leopold as providing the e-mail insisted he had never spoken with Leopold. (In the book's press release, the author gloats that journalists, including this reporter, "never bothered to check out my past" while covering his mistakes.)

The press release says Leopold used his own criminal past to ingratiate himself with Enron executives, which is how he landed the first interview with former chief executive Jeffrey Skilling after the energy giant declared bankruptcy.

The release fleshes out a troubled career. Leopold says his grand larceny conviction in 1996 was for stealing compact discs from his employer, a New York music company, and reselling them to record stores. He says he was fired by the Los Angeles Times "for threatening to rip a reporter's head off." Leopold says he quit Dow Jones Newswires in a dispute over his beat but later learned the news service was planning to fire him because of a correction to one of his Enron stories: "Seems I got all of the facts wrong."

Leopold now says he was "brutally honest" in the book and admits to making "many mistakes. . . . I was hoping it would allow me to find some sort of redemption."

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